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Staying Ahead of the Curve
Ethan Kazi, CEO The Canton Group

October 2017

Ethan Kazi, CEO,The Canton Group.

Technology by its intrinsic nature is constantly changing. No one is more aware of this than Ethan Kazi, CEO of The Canton Group, a software development, website design and technology consulting firm in Baltimore. Kazi started The Canton Group in 1998, when the use of the internet on a global scale was in the beginning stages, Facebook and Twitter were years away from launching, and Amazon was focused solely on selling books and music. And while many of Kazi’s contemporaries in the field have come and gone, The Canton Group has not only survived the volatile nature of the industry – it has thrived.

Kazi started The Canton Group out of his own living room. Almost 20 years later, the firm has won numerous awards, has over 80 employees and consultants nationwide, handles local and national clients and now has two Baltimore locations – an industrial loft space at the American Can Company building in the Canton neighborhood of Baltimore and a nearby space on Canton Square. During this time, Kazi has strategically grown the firm with one mission – deliver for his clients.

Although a national company, The Canton Group has never forgotten where home is – Baltimore. With this in mind, the firm has a program called “CG Cares” (Canton Group Cares) in order to give back to the community. Through this program, The Canton Group has supported numerous philanthropic efforts – the Special Olympics, The Ladarius Web Foundation, Boys and Girls Club of Maryland, Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital and many more. The Canton Group also works closely with a number of not-for-profits to provide them with heavily discounted web and technology services.

“We’ve always been very thoughtful on how we diversify in both the industries we serve and the services we provide. Obviously with web design, web development and IT, there have been massive changes since we started almost 20 years ago,” says Kazi. “Our goal has always been to ensure that what we provide to our clients stays relevant and we stay abreast of the latest technology.”

Staying current – or ideally ahead of the curve – when it comes to technology is no easy task. Kazi says The Canton Group aims to use technology that has real staying power. “We try to avoid getting caught up in ones that are fads with no long-term value to our clients. We also made a conscious decision to be technology agnostic – we have no set allegiance to any one software platform, for example. Instead we focus on what issues our clients are facing, how we can offer continued value, and how we can tie into their operations so that we are a partner and an extension of their organization,” he says. “If we are not continuously offering something of real inherent value to our clients, than we need to reevaluate what we are doing and the services we are providing.”

One area of particular focus for The Canton Group’s clients is the need to ensure cybersecurity, especially after the recent massive data breach experienced by Equifax that affected almost half of U.S. consumers. Kazi says that his firm takes a proactive, not reactive, approach when aiming to secure clients’ sensitive data. “Whether we are designing a new system or rebuilding an outdated system, we build the system with security in mind from the onset. When you don’t have the right security professionals involved in the beginning, you are forced to try patching or throwing security devices at an existing system, which increases costs and often does little to improve the inherent security of the system. We take ownership of the entire application instead of re-selling security appliances or security software,” Kazi says.

Having security professionals involved in the initial architecture and design of a system is nothing new to The Canton Group. While some agencies focus primarily on website design and marketing, and others are strictly IT shops that deploy IT infrastructure but not necessarily software focused, The Canton Group takes a different approach. All services – from software development to web/mobile design, application support, systems integration and technology consulting – are completely integrated, allowing the firm to develop impactful solutions to complex challenges.

Keeping An Eye on the Bottom Line

With any substantial undertaking such as developing and installing a new IT infrastructure, system or new software to address changing needs, there is a cost involved. And with many of The Canton Group’s government clients, the challenge is transitioning off of outdated systems – called “legacy systems” – to more advanced, Cloud-based systems, while being mindful and sensitive to limited budgets.

“We look at what needs to be immediately replaced and what can be slowly integrated, as well as the total cost for the organization, such as raw hardware, labor and software licensing. We look at what the legacy system is costing the organization in terms of preventing operational capabilities, not to mention the cybersecurity implications with an outdated system. All of these variables factor into our recommendations of how to migrate away from a legacy system,” Kazi says.

Beyond the budget, migrating from a legacy system takes time, but the organization still needs to function properly during this transition. Kazi uses the analogy of trying to change the wheels on a bus while it’s still moving. “When we first started, we were mostly building systems from scratch with custom design and development. With the legacy systems, we are designing and developing the new systems while still caring for the old one, which is significantly more complex and challenging.”

Despite growing significantly in size, employees at The Canton Group remain a close knit team, collaborating on projects on a regular basis.

The Canton Group’s success in this niche has paid dividends for the firm as Kazi estimates that government work – on the local, state and federal level – represents about 65 percent of the firm’s projects. The Canton Group’s portfolio includes development of mobile applications and a website for NOAA and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with Johns Hopkins University, website development for the Social Security Administration, as well as long-term contracts with high-profile government agencies, including the Maryland State Department of Education, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Department of State. They have also performed work for universities from the University of Maryland School of Public Health to the University of Southern California.

“There is huge growth potential in government work. An IT modernization fund has been pushed for years in the federal government, as there is a massive amount of legacy systems that need to be migrated. It’s a tremendous undertaking that cannot be done all at once, so the government needs to prioritize and assess which systems are most critical and have the largest operational impact,” Kazi notes.

Diversification for Future Growth

Like any successful company, The Canton Group is not about to rest on its laurels and is always eyeing new opportunities. The firm is proud of its Baltimore heritage and has deep roots in the local community (see sidebar).

Kazi says, “We don’t aggressively pursue work in other markets because we don’t need to, but we do get work outside the regional market via referrals or by direct contact based on our past work. However, with the nature of the work that we do, it is necessary to serve a national customer base.” Serving clients from coast to coast is made easier by technological advances. “In the early days, I had to travel a lot to Texas, Seattle and New York City. Now technology allows us to do so much more remotely. We have some clients where we have never physically gone out to see them – from the initial discussion of the scope of work, to managing the project to deploying it into production. And these are clients we’ve had for years,” he says.

Some national clients of note include Kaiser Permanente, Xerox, Audi, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, NASA and Deloitte. Kazi says that The Canton Group is looking to expand into multiple sectors, and the new business development efforts are led by Laura Gaworecki and Frank Dickson, Business Development Directors.

When hiring these business development professionals, Kazi says, “It took a lot of time to find individuals who align with our core value within the organization – serving our clients. It’s less about sales, and more about making sure we are doing right by the customer, providing long-term value to them and being a true partner.”

Another sector Kazi is targeting is health care, an industry the firm already has extensive experience working with health care firms like Johns Hopkins, Kaiser Permanente and Baltimore City Health Department, especially in the areas of securing sensitive data and the myriad regulatory matters. “Health care is a great area for growth for us; there is going to be a major expansion over the coming years. Our experience in HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), PHI (Protected Health Information) and our overall EMR/EHR consulting and implementation services will be an advantage,” he says.

Zach Bauhaus was Ethan Kazi’s first hire at The Canton Group and he remains with the firm today.

For every business that enjoys decades of success, there are dozens more that grew too fast and lost sight of their core business model, a fact not lost on Kazi. “We are never going to grow for the sake of growth. We will turn work down if there is a chance that we cannot deliver services that are high quality. We are focused on positioning the company for the next 20 years by identifying markets where there is growth potential and that complement our core skill sets. I’m also responsible for the firm’s employees and their families, which I take very seriously, so I in no way want to do anything that is considered reckless.”

Always Focused on the Client

Thriving as an industry leader for almost 20 years in an incredibly competitive marketplace is no small feat. When asked what he views as the secret to The Canton Group’s long-term success, Kazi says, “Early on it was hard work and perseverance. There were years when we started the firm that we worked around the clock and on weekends. We didn’t sleep much. The focus was always on delivering for our clients. From Day One, that was our core mission.”

A focus on delivering for the client starts with Kazi and is exemplified by each of The Canton Group’s employees. And unlike the common misconception that all technology companies are filled with individuals staring at computers and not interacting, the environment at The Canton Group is vastly different, as teams huddle to solve problems and intercommunication is encouraged.

“Communication is fundamental to the success of any organization. You have to be able to have relationships internally within your team but also with the clients,” says Kazi. “Everyone on the project team interacts with clients. Some individuals in technology don’t want to ever talk to a client and just want to work in the back room at a computer, which is fine, but they may not be the best fit here. We prefer to hire individuals who have primary, secondary and even tertiary skill sets so that anyone can hop in as needed to help out. You need someone who can be programming in Java one day and then programming in Python or PHP the next, and they are equally good at both.”

And as The Canton Group has grown, there undoubtedly have been challenges along the way, like there is for any CEO.

“When we first started out and there were just the four founders and a few employees (Zach Bauhaus was Kazi’s first hire and he remains with the firm), I was very hands-on with everything. Then you have to find people to bring onto the team who you can trust, so that you can truly let go, which is a big adjustment,” Kazi says. “A lot of business leaders cannot let go and that will drive good employees away. If you take the time and spend the money to bring in really good people, let them do their job. They may not do it like you … and hopefully they won’t. You can hold them accountable for doing a good job, but let them do their job and don’t get in their way. Support them, but let them fail. Failure is part of learning.” I95